The hat looked something like a French beret, but it was puffier, like a slouchy beret. Perhaps it was a cross between a beret and a chef’s hat. It looked like something Rembrandt might have worn in one of his late self-portraits. Beatrice assumed that on some level Ralph thought it was jaunty. But it wasn’t. It was less than jaunty, significantly less. Truth be told, it was hideous.
Yes, her husband, Ralph, was walking around in public in a hat that looked like it should be part of a Purim costume, and Beatrice was less than thrilled. Something had to be done, and fast.
But what made Ralph’s absurd brush with a milliner so much more fantastic was that he was the least likely person to wear something outside of the norm. He was the most staid, mainstream, run-of-the-mill dresser on the planet. In fact, everything he did was predictable. He ate the same breakfast every day (maple and brown sugar oatmeal with black coffee). The same lunch (tuna and a touch of mayo on rye, with a half-sour pickle on the side and a cup of Lipton tea). And his clothing followed the same theme. Blue oxford shirts with gray slacks and a blue patterned tie under a navy blazer. Forever into eternity.
Knowing Ralph as she did, Beatrice knew that there was a story behind the hat. She just wasn’t sure she had the strength to hear it.
Mercifully, he didn’t come down to breakfast with the hat on. But she knew it was with his overcoat in the front closet (wool, gray herringbone pattern; the same one for at least the last twenty years). And just knowing it was in the house irked her.
“Honey, I can’t help but notice that you bought yourself a new chapeau.”
“Oh, yes! It’s called a boina.”
“A boina. It’s a Catalan beret. It’s all the rage this season. Dashing, wouldn’t you say?”
Beatrice considered her words carefully. “Yes, quite dashing. But I’m just not sure it’s you.”
“You know. You’re more of a classicist. I picture you in more of a fedora with a rim. Can you see it?”
Ralph looked up from his oatmeal and thought about it for a moment. “No, I think the boina works for me. I’m going to stick with my new hat.”
“Would you consider a trilby?”
“A homburg, perhaps?”
“A bowler, or a newsboy cap?”
“Nothing doing.” Ralph turned and faced his wife. “O.K., Bea, what gives? You don’t like the hat?”
“It’s not that I don’t like it, Honey. It’s that I hate it. I hate it with a white-hot passion. I’m worried that children will stop and stare as they walk by you on their way to school. I’m concerned that drivers are at risk of getting into accidents as they take their eyes off the road to check out the hideous appendage that rests on your head. I’m worried that our daughters won’t be able to find suitable mates someday when the boys get a look at your Catalan beret.”
“Bea, the girls are only 3 and 5 years old. I’m sure it will pass by then.”
“No, Ralph, I’m not so sure. That’s how bad that hat is.”
“So, you don’t like it.”
“No, not particularly.”
“But it has special meaning for me.”
And this was the part Beatrice was dreading most: the story.
She tried not to ask, but Ralph persisted.
“It’s an important hat, Bea, with a purpose.”
She had no choice.
“Yes, the boina reminds me of the mitznefet.”
“The mitznefet. It’s the turban that the kohen gadol wore on his head when he led the ritual service. It was a 32-foot-long strip of linen that was wound around the High Priest’s head. Some say that he wore it to atone for the sin of haughtiness.*”
“Oh, that mitznefet!”
“Go ahead and joke, but I take the priestly service quite seriously.”
(Did I mention that their full name was Ralph and Beatrice Cohen? It must have slipped my mind.)
“And why’s that?”
“Because we kohanim need to maintain traditions. It’s true that Judaism is a religion filled with independent thought and innovation, but continuity is very important, too. Kohanim are the keepers of the rituals of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple in Jerusalem. We give the priestly blessing to the congregation, and we are the keepers of the priestly tradition. So we need to stick to the rituals as best we can. Because without the rituals, our tradition would fade. So, I’m going to wear my hat which reminds me of the mitznefet, and if anyone asks, I’ll tell them why.”
“Or, even if they don’t ask.”
“That is certainly a possibility.”
“Good story, Honey.”
“So, is that why you eat the same food every single day, to maintain traditions as a kohen?”
“No, I just like tuna on rye and a good half-sour pickle. It’s not a crime.”
“No one is going to take away your tuna, Ralph.”
“Not if they know what’s good for them.”
*Gemara Bavli, Zevachim, 88b
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.
By Larry Stiefel